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Five on Friday: Checking information

Five on Friday: Checking information

Welcome to Five on Friday, a round-up of views on a theme. This time we take you through the world of information, how to validate it, how to use it for your own nefarious ends. Though I admit not all ends are nefarious. Here are five perspectives on information, and a reminder that information is not knowledge is not education.

Look, I know you’re not aiming for a Nobel Prize with your course and it isn’t like a diploma entails original research in the same way a doctorate does, however, it does pay to make sure you have the right facts on hand to feed your foundational knowledge. But how do you know if the information is correct?

Ask a child today about the Encyclopaedia Britannica and you’ll receive either a blank look or an explanation of how encyclopedia sets can be used as shelf decoration for a ‘classic look’ study (in which case that child is an interior decorating prodigy—how about a reality TV show?). Remember when the world wide web was called the ‘information superhighway’? (Or am I just old?) The way we access information has changed, and it’s no wonder Britannica stopped publishing its encyclopedia set last year. But using information we find online is fraught with its own traps, so how do we make sure we know what we’re getting?

1. Wikipedia
A friend of mine once called Google the front page of Wikipedia, so often did a search lead to a Wikipedia entry. This free, crowdsourced tool can settle arguments in seconds, but how reliable is the information it provides?

A 2005 review conducted by scientific publication Nature found that Wikipedia was just as accurate as traditional printed encyclopedias (such as Britannica) based on a sample of 42 articles. In Wikipedia’s favour was the online factor, as it undergoes constant editing to maintain accuracy. It is also transparent about the source/s of its articles, or places a warning on articles that may not meet its guidelines.

The real clincher comes from founder Jim Wales, who said Wikipedia should be the beginning of a research trail, not the end. Which is to say it makes a great resource for background information and also gives readers signposts to other sources (through its citations) but should not be taken as the be-all end-all expert on the subject. For a truly meta read, check out the Reliability of Wikipedia  entry on Wikipedia.

2. Google Scholar
Speaking of experts, one easy way to access academic papers is to search for something using Google Scholar. Using your search terms, the search engine will find peer reviewed papers that are available to read online so you can defer to the experts who have done all the research. Use your own discretion to decide whether the results are what you were actually after…

3. Fact-checking websites
Once a niche market, fact checking has become almost a standard side order to modern journalism since the sector suffered from budget and staff cuts. Mostly focused on whether politicians tell the truth (pause for laughter), sites like Politifact, ABC News Fact Check and The Australia Institute’s Facts Fight Back examine claims using data that may support or discredit the claims. Handy, particularly in an election year.

Perhaps more relevant to your interests, or indeed your course, is The Conversation’s FactCheck, which takes an academic approach to examining the truth of widely circulated statements.

While you may not be after verification of a fact, the process these sites undertake is important as it is this critical thinking that forms the backbone of education rather than the information itself. 

4. Myth-busting websites
If you’re a fan of the TV show Mythbusters you’ll already know the formula: team takes on a perpetuated myth and designs an experiment to prove or disprove the myth. The show is genius in spreading a scientific approach to solving problems, or in this case half-facts or possible fabrications.

Along the same lines, though perhaps less entertaining visually, are sites like Snopes and Straight Dope, which investigate rumours, urban legends and common misconceptions. Again, the takeaway for you here is the process of examining information, even though you can have fun finding out if Walt Disney really was cryogenically frozen.

5. Research
Don’t do too much; avoid analysis paralysis. Remember, an education is as much about skills as it is knowledge. Give the books a rest and have a good weekend.

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